Friday, April 27, 2007

2008 Republican presidential candidates

Republican Politics, American Style
Published April 26th 2007 in Metro Eireann
By Charles Laffiteau

This week I want to discuss what I believe are the differences between the Republican Presidential candidates as well as their strengths and weaknesses among Republican and national voters. I will begin by summarizing the three main candidate’s very similar positions on the war in Iraq.
Senator McCain was supportive of the invasion of Iraq, but has long been critical of the way the war has been conducted, repeatedly calling for the use of more troops to stabilize the country until the Iraq government is able to sustain itself. He supports the Bush administrations current strategy and truly believes that; “If we walk away from Iraq, we will be back - possibly in the context of a wider war in the world's most volatile region. I believe that those who disagree with this new policy should indicate what they would propose to do if we withdraw and Iraq descends into chaos.”
Rudy Giuliani also strongly supports the decision to invade Iraq and the President’s decision to increase the number of American soldiers fighting there. He underscored his belief that success in the Iraq conflict is essential in the war on terror; “I support what the president asked for support to do and what General Petraeus has asked for support to do, not because there's any guarantee it's going to work. There's never any guarantee at war. But if we can come out with a correct solution or a better solution in Iraq, it's going to make the whole war on terror go better.”
Mitt Romney supported the decision to invade Iraq but, like Senator McCain, faults the Bush administration for the planning and execution of the war. As for continuing to stay the course and increasing the number of US troops in Iraq, he has left himself a bit more wiggle room than his two opponents. His position going forward is best exemplified by this comment; “I believe that so long as there is a reasonable prospect of success, our wisest course is to seek stability in Iraq, with additional troops endeavouring to secure the civilian population.” Note the qualifying phrase “so long as there is a reasonable prospect of success” which allows him to change this position later if the conflict continues without any improvement.
Other Republican candidates mirror the frontrunners support for the President on the Iraq war with the notable exceptions of Tom Tancredo and Senator Chuck Hagel. While I don’t think either has any chance of winning the Republican nomination, Hagel’s views reflect those of an increasing number of other Republicans. He admits invading Iraq was a mistake, has opposed increasing the number of troops in Iraq and agues that; “A new American strategy for Iraq should include moving our troops out of the cities to Iraq's border areas, allowing us to help secure the territorial integrity of Iraq which will be seriously threatened and is critical for the future of Iraq.”
All of the candidates have been courting the religious and social conservatives within the Republican Party because they don’t believe they can win the Republican Party nomination without some level of support from these voters. To that end, Mitt Romney has changed his position on abortion to one opposing it and softened his support of gay rights in an attempt to woo these voters. Some Republicans are also concerned about Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation with the Mormon Church and his attempts to portray himself as a “life long hunter” who strongly supports conservative views opposing gun control legislation.
Many conservatives are also suspicious of Senator McCain’s stated support for their agenda and can hardly be pleased with this recent statement on abortion by Rudy Giuliani; “I think abortion is wrong, but ultimately, I think it is a woman’s right, a woman’s choice. And government should not interfere with it by imposing criminal penalties on people.” They are also concerned that Giuliani has been divorced twice and his current wife has been through three divorces. Newt Gingrich carries similar baggage in addition to his recent admission that he was having an affair at the same time he was calling for the House of Representatives to impeach President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The only candidates who appear to be “proper conservatives” in the minds of right wing Republican religious and social conservatives are Senator Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who, like Iraq war opponents Chuck Hagel and Tom Tancredo, have no chance at winning the Republican nomination in 2008. The end result is that many Republican primary voters are not satisfied with the current field of presidential candidates and are actively looking for alternatives like Newt Gingrich to step forward.
The only alternative to the three front runners that I believe has a chance at winning the Republican nomination is “Law and Order “actor turned Senator, turned actor again, Fred Thompson of Tennessee. He doesn’t carry the polarizing image or marital baggage that Newt Gingrich has and is also deemed acceptable to most Republican Party conservatives. While he is currently weighing a run for the nomination, Fred Thompson probably won’t decide until this summer. I believe he will wait and see if the current candidates are unable to muster a broad enough base of support before he elects to enter the process in an attempt to unify the Republican Party and thus save it from certain disaster in the 2008 elections.
Of the current Republican candidates, only former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has approval ratings of at least 50% within the Republican Party. But his views on abortion and gay rights will alienate a significant segment of conservative Republican primary voters, while his support for the Iraq war will alienate many independent voters in the national election.
On the other hand, Mitt Romney has been much more successful at raising money than he has with raising his name recognition and his approval rating in Republican polls. His Republican approval ratings are well back of those for Giuliani, McCain and even Fred Thompson. While Romney has lagged Democrats Clinton and Obama in raising money thus far, he has still raised significantly more than Giuliani and almost doubled the amount raised by former front runner John McCain. McCain trails Giuliani in the polls by 10-15 percentage points and is even further behind both Romney and Giuliani in terms of fundraising.
Republican Party candidates for Congress and the Presidency are faced with a dilemma, in that their greatest strengths in terms of winning the party’s nomination are also probably their greatest weaknesses in appealing to national voters. Thus a strategy of mobilizing the party’s conservative base is likely to yield diminishing returns in the national election. Strong support for the war in Iraq and a conservative social agenda are stances which will help you win the Republican nomination, but don’t appeal to independent American voters. Thus, Republican prospects in 2008 look increasingly grim to this Republican.

2008 Democratic Presidential candidates

Republican Politics, American Style
Published April 19th 2007
By Charles Laffiteau

What are the various strengths and weaknesses among the three main candidates and the other possible contenders for the Democratic Presidential nomination? Since the Iraq war is likely to be the defining issue of the 2008 election I will begin by summarizing the candidates’ positions on the war in Iraq and how they propose to resolve the situation there.
All of the Democratic candidates were opposed to increasing troop strength in Iraq and all of them favour some type of phased redeployment and or withdrawal of troops beginning this year. Given popular sentiment against the war and increasing the number of American soldiers there, this is a safe position to take with both Democratic Primary voters and national voters. However there is little to no chance that the Bush Administration will begin to withdraw troops before the November 2008 general election. Thus if one of these Democrats is elected President, they will have to begin mapping out a withdrawal or redeployment plan after they take office rather than continuing to implement such a strategy.
Opposition to the Iraq war looms as one of (if not the greatest) major strengths of the Democratic candidates for Congress and the presidency in 2008. It is much easier to propose solutions for President Bush to implement that you know he won’t, than it is to implement alternative solutions that you will later be held accountable for. How Democrats handle the withdrawal of American troops and what happens in Iraq after those troops are gone could become either a strength or a weakness in future elections however. A messy pullout which results in a bloodbath of Iraqi sectarian violence would not help them win re-election in 2012.
If there is a difference among the major candidates regarding their opposition to the Iraq war, it is in terms of when you first opposed the war. Barack Obama is one of only 3 Democratic candidates who opposed the war from the outset. Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel also opposed the war from the very beginning, but they have no hope of winning the presidential nomination. On the other hand, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a potential dark-horse candidate who bears watching, never had to take a stand for or against the war and says he would have opposed it “knowing what he knows now.” All of the other candidates, including the other 2 front runners, Senators Clinton and Edwards, voted to authorize the war and now admit they would not have done so knowing that the Bush administration had used faulty and discredited intelligence to justify the need to invade Iraq.
Senator Obama however, took a politically unpopular stand against the war in October of 2002 just before he began his 2004 Senate campaign when he told the Illinois State Legislature; “I know that invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst rather than best impulses in the Arab world and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda.” His longstanding opposition to the war is looming as a major strength for him with both Democratic voters and independent national voters.
On the other hand, votes to authorize the war have hurt both Senator Clinton and John Edwards with a number of Democratic Primary voters. Senator Clinton is so concerned that she has attempted to blur the distinction between her and other candidates’ more recent opposition to the war and Senator Obama’s position opposing it all along. In February she went so far as to say that; “If I had been President in October of 2002, I would have never asked for authority to divert our attention from Afghanistan to Iraq, and I certainly would never have started this war.” But the fact remains that she did vote to authorize the war in 2002 and some Democrats will not vote for her and will vote for Senator Obama because of this single issue.
Unlike their Republican counterparts, there are also not any major differences among the Democratic candidates on other issues like immigration reform (where they may actually be able to work out a compromise with Bush before he leaves office), reducing the budget deficit, the need for universal healthcare and legislation to address global warming. Democratic unity on these and broader social issues like abortion, civil rights and social welfare represents an additional strength for Democratic Congressional and Presidential candidates in 2008. The war and the environment are also issues which help mobilize the Democratic “base” of liberal social activists during the primaries, which is likely to pay additional dividends during the November general election.
Another somewhat surprising strength for Democrats has been the fundraising prowess of the 3 Democratic Presidential front-runners. Senators Clinton, Obama and Edwards have raised a combined 65 million dollars so far versus only 47 million for the top 3 Republican candidates. Democratic dark-horse Richardson finished a strong fourth among Democrats by raising an additional 6 million dollars which was just under half the 12.5 million raised by former Republican front runner John McCain.
This is another worrisome trend for the Republican Party which has historically been able to raise much more money to finance their political campaigns than their Democratic counterparts. This is one of the reasons why Republicans have always opposed attempts to reform political campaign financing laws and regulations. If Democrats continue to raise money at the current rate (78 million combined versus 51 million for all the republican candidates), then dark days lie ahead for the Republican candidates for Congress and the presidency in November 2008.
Senator Clinton continues to lead the Democratic polls by a margin of as much as 15-20 points over her nearest rival Senator Obama with John Edwards remaining as a close third choice among Democrats. But Senator Clinton has been unable to boost her approval ratings among Democrats above 40% which means that roughly 2/3rds of Democrats would rather see someone else as their Presidential candidate in 2008.
Even more worrisome for Senator Clinton was the fact that she was only able to raise 1 million dollars more for her presidential campaign than Senator Obama in the first quarter of 2007 ($26 million versus $25 million). Senator Edwards’s campaign has also hit some bumps with his third place finish in fundraising of 14 million dollars and the news that his wife’s cancer has returned. Some pundits question whether he will be able to run as effectively without the constant support and advice of his wife, who is also his number one campaign advisor.
It is still too early to count out Governor Richardson and Al Gore as possible contenders for the Democratic nomination should one or more of the current front runners falter. But regardless of the nominee, the Democratic standard bearer and other Democrats running for congress appear to be well positioned to take control of the Presidency and increase their total number of seats in Congress come November of next year. Over the past six years Republicans have remained unified in support of the President but recent polls suggest a distinct loss of enthusiasm among Republican voters. Unless this trend is reversed, 2008 could be a disastrous election year for Republicans.

An evening at the Brit awards in London

Republican Politics, American Style
Published April 12th 2007 in Metro Eireann
By Charles Laffiteau

On Valentines Day I had the opportunity to travel to London for the Brit Awards. I will now take some time now to describe my experiences at the night’s events and share my impressions about them with you.
As to why I was attending the Brit Awards, I was fortunate enough to win an all expense paid VIP package which included tickets to the Brits and the pre and post parties, round trip airline tickets, accommodations at a four star hotel in Kensington and a chauffer for my entire stay in London. Usually when I go to London, I go to an ATM at Heathrow, get £50-100 and buy a 3 day off-peak tube and bus pass for £19 so I can get around the city. To be chauffeured everywhere in London was quite a treat all by itself, not to mention the feeling that I was experiencing what it must be like to “live like a rock star”.
Since tickets for the Brits are not sold to the public, the only way to attend the Awards show is to be or know someone in the music industry, or buy them at exorbitant prices from ticket brokers. I was indeed lucky to be able to attend at all, much less to experience the rock star treatment as well.
I was going to wear an orange “Guantanamo Bay” jumpsuit, but decided this would prove too embarrassing to those who were accompanying me to the Awards show. Instead, I opted for a tuxedo, white tuxedo shirt and black bow tie, accented with my special “autographed by musicians I have met” cream coloured vest with a matching western Stetson hat and black western boots with silver toe and heel guards. Such an outfit would not be unusual at the Country Music Awards in the United States, but it attracted a lot of attention at the Brits.
ITV was filming me at the pre-party and after the show, women were coming up to me and posing for pictures, giving me their phone numbers and some even asked to take pictures of my boots. One would think the British had never seen anyone dressed this way before by the reactions I experienced throughout the evening. I must say I had a whale of a night being the centre of attention even in the presence of numerous well known rock stars and other luminaries.
The Awards show itself was also quite a memorable experience. It was being broadcast live on ITV for the first time in 16 years, so there were breaks throughout for commercials, which the audience used to refuel and refresh themselves without missing any performers. For those of you who weren’t able to watch the show, I will recap the performances I saw..
The Scissor Sisters opened with their nominated song and a very theatrical performance that simulated them floating around the stage. Muse received the first award of the evening which was then followed by a great performance by Snow Patrol of their nominated song. Awards were then given to the Fratellies, who didn’t seem to want to leave the stage, and to Orson.
Amy Winehouse then came on and performed one of the songs from her “Back to Black” nominated album, but she appeared to be a bit off the mark and under the influence of the “Jack and Coke” she had demanded be available for her party of 20 guests. Amy is such a talented performer, but I’m afraid she is going to end up in rehab like Robbie Williams or killing herself, hopefully the former rather than the latter.
Awards were then presented to James Morrison and Justin Timberlake (the only musician not present to receive his award) and this was followed by a smashing performance by the Killers of a cut from their “Sam’s Town” release. Amy Winehouse received an award and was noticeably “under the influence” during the course of her brief acceptance speech.
Then Nelly Furtado got the nod as best International female artist in a surprise win over Pink based on the crowd reaction. This was followed by crowd pleasing performance of “Patience” by former boy band Take That, who later collected an award for the same song as best British single of the year.
My favs, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, performed just before the Killers picked up an International award for “Sam’s Town” and this was followed by an awesome performance by Colleen Bailey Rae of her nominated song and then the best British single award was presented to Take That.
Artic Monkeys then picked up the best British album award, prior to the lifetime achievement award being given to Oasis as the nights final award presentation. Oasis then closed the show with a live mini-concert of four songs, two new and two old hits, lasting about 25 minutes and running well past the end of the live TV broadcast.
In my opinion, the Brits are a much livelier and entertaining music awards show than their American counterpart, the Grammy’s, which gave nominations and awards to many of the same artists. The Grammy’s come off as a much more tedious and heavily scripted show and the performers and presenters don’t appear to have as much fun as they do at the Brits.
Russell Brand started off slowly as the MC with some of his scripted remarks falling flat at the beginning of the show. But he got better as the evening wore on and he began to ad-lib more and depart from the script in his interactions with the various awards presenters. Russell is at his best in this type of format (when he is un-scripted and running at the mouth) and he was in top form by the end of the evening.
After rubbing elbows with the musical artists present for the awards show, my entourage departed Earls Court for some late night dancing and music at the Elks Club on Broadway and Fulham, before being chauffeured back to our hotel in Kensington. We finished our evening at the hotel bar mixing and mingling with other Brit Awards guests until around 4am in the morning.
Few of us made it to breakfast the next morning but, thanks to our able chauffer, we all made it to the airport in time for our return flight to Dublin that afternoon. All in all, my trip to the Brit Awards was an experience I will never forget or regret. Until next week, what can I say but that the Brits are a great music awards show and “Rock On”. I hope I will be able to attend again someday!

Barack Obama and the Iraq War

Republican Politics, American Style
Published April 5th 2007 in Metro Eireann
By Charles Laffiteau

Some Democratic Presidential candidates have recently attempted to blur the differences between their positions on the Iraq war and the long held positions of Senator Obama regarding this war. Most Americans, including many Republicans, would not have voted to authorize President Bush to go to war in Iraq if they had known in 2002, what they know today.(ie there were no WMDs or Al Qaeda terrorists operating in Iraq.) Personally, I don't think Senator Clinton and Senator Edwards have to apologize for being duped by the Bush Administration because most Americans were as well.

The distinction between Senator Obama's position and those of the other candidates, is that he opposed the war at a time when it was politically UNPOPULAR to be against it. He did so knowing that taking such a position would probably hurt his chances to be elected to the US Senate in 2004. The other candidates went along with POPULAR opinion at that time, which strongly favoured going to war. Voting to authorize the President to go to war was hardly a politically risky move on their part, but opposing the war was a risky move by Senator Obama.

I don't think any less of Senators' Clinton or Edwards because they went along with popular opinion at the time by voting for the war in Iraq, but I do admire Senator Obama for his willingness to take a principled and UNPOPULAR stand against going to war back in 2002.

Obama’s Democratic opponent’s comments that their positions are all really the same, are an attempt to blur this distinction between the candidates' records regarding the Iraq war and put everyone on an equal footing in terms of opposing it today.

The fact remains however, that Senator Obama's opposition to the war in 2002, though unpopular at the time, has proven to be the right position. It was a position the other candidates wish they would have taken at the time but did not. Senator Clinton and the other candidates need to just concede this point to Senator Obama and move on to other issues.

Real leadership isn't about going along with the conventional wisdom or popular opinion. It's not about blurring distinctions between right and wrong to justify your mistakes or to avoid accountability for them. It's about standing up for what you believe is right and opposing what you think is wrong regardless of the consequences.

Senator Obama has not only been against the war since 2002, but he also demonstrated clarity and insight when he explained why he was against it. At an anti-war rally in Chicago in 2002 he said; "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars. You want a fight, President Bush? Let's finish the fight with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and with a homeland security program that involves more than colour-coded warnings."

Instead of focusing on co-ordinating intelligence gathering with other countries and hunting down the remnants of al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan, the Bush Administration decided to open up a new front in a country with no al-Qaeda terrorists but (unlike Afghanistan) one possessing plenty of oil reserves.

The Bush Administration largely justified its invasion by citing evidence of WMD and visits to Iraq by a Jordanian named al-Zarqawi (who they claimed was a leader of al-Qaeda)along with a mis-guided neo-conservative vision of spreading American style democracy throughout the Middle East.

In fact, al-Zarqawi only became the self-proclaimed leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq AFTER the US invasion. Prior to the invasion he had been fighting Kurdish nationalists as a member of Ansar al-Islam (not al-Qaeda).

Al-Qaeda now has a strong presence in Iraq (which it did not have prior to the invasion) and has used the time since the Iraq invasion to strengthen its alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan and open new terrorist training camps there and in Pakistan. Furthermore, the Bush Administration's evidence of WMD was at best flimsy and has since been proven to be false and to some extent "manufactured".

As for spreading our vision of democracy throughout the Middle East, is that really a legitimate justification for going to war and spending vast sums of money and American lives in the bargain?

Senator Obama was not alone with his UNPOPULAR view of the Bush Administration's rationale for invading Iraq. 23 other Senators shared some of these same concerns and voted accordingly. Critics who point to the fact that Obama was not a Senator and could not vote against the resolution to authorize the President to go to war are trying to blur the distinction between those who opposed the war from the outset and those who now realize that voting for it was a mistake.

No evidence exists to support the idea that Obama might have changed his anti-Iraq war stance and voted with the majority of 77 other Senators (including Clinton and Edwards) had he been in office as a Senator in 2002.

Senator Obama also demonstrated excellent insight when he expressed his concerns about Sunni and Shiite sectarian violence as another of his reasons for opposing the Iraq war back in 2002.This same concern was one of the main reasons why Bush's father did not invade Iraq during the Gulf War in a 1991. Unfortunately President Bush and his inner circle chose to ignore these concerns. Other Senators who voted against the war cited similar concerns about sectarian conflict in a post-war Iraq as well as their concern that an Iraq war would divert resources from the real "war on terror".

Senator Obama and the other members of Congress who voted against the war should be applauded for their prescience as well the political courage they demonstrated by opposing the war. Attempts by those who were not as forward looking or politically courageous to blur these distinctions should be seen for what they are. Their motives are politically self-serving, because today, being against the war is in line with American POPULAR opinion.